Myers: Hurricanes' move to cut Jack LaFontaine is a harsh reminder of pro hockey's cold realities
After just 75 minutes on the ice in the NHL, Jack LaFontaine was effectively laid off by the Carolina Hurricanes, who had rushed him out of college in the middle of the Minnesota Gophers' season. It serves a reminder that in pro sports, the athletes are too often treated like chess pieces and not people.
MINNEAPOLIS — Imagine applying for a writing job, and for work samples, they wanted to see one sentence. Imagine tryouts for American Idol where contestants are allowed to sing just one verse of a song. Picture hiring a chef, then allowing them five minutes in the kitchen, and one Ritz cracker to work with.
Similarly, when you try out for a long-term job in professional hockey, the equivalent of those "blink and you'll miss them" auditions might be all that you get. That was a lesson Minnesota Gophers fans learned recently.
Just a few days after he turned 24, and just a few hours after backstopping a key road sweep for the Gophers, Jack LaFontaine was handed the chance of a lifetime.
The Carolina Hurricanes, who had drafted LaFontaine six years earlier, couldn’t wait until the end of his final college season to grab the tall puck-stopper. On Jan. 9, with 14 Gophers’ regular season games remaining, the Hurricanes signed LaFontaine to an entry-level deal .
His now-former Gophers teammates had nothing but good things to say publicly, wishing LaFontaine a long and successful career in Carolina. The Gophers coaches claimed that despite losing the player named the top goalie in college hockey less than a year earlier, they talked about it for less than two minutes. Head coach Bob Motzko and his staff treated the departure similar to a season-ending injury, calling on the next man up and inserted talented but untested walk-on Justen Close into that gap between the goalposts.
Within a matter of days LaFontaine was seeing action in a NHL game, although in the third period of a lost cause, he was hung out to dry and faced multiple breakaways. LaFontaine would get one start for the Hurricanes, a loss. His NHL numbers included 75 minutes of time on the ice. He played 13 games in the AHL and two more in the ECHL. Numbers-wise it was not the start anyone would dream of for their career, but at just 24, LaFontaine has plenty of pro hockey ahead of him.
It just won’t happen in Carolina.
In Monday’s pro hockey transactions, the Hurricanes declined to make a qualifying offer to LaFontaine, making him a free agent. After less than four periods of NHL playing time, the red-hot prospect they were in a notable rush to get out of college and into their system was cut.
LaFontaine, who is from suburban Toronto, began his college career at Michigan, playing in 22 games for the Wolverines over his first two seasons before new coach Mel Pearson cut him loose. He played a year of juniors in British Columbia before finding a new home at 3M Arena at Mariucci. As a senior with the Gophers, LaFontaine set to work collecting wins and awards. He backstopped the Gophers’ Big Ten playoff title and was named the conference’s top goalie and playoff MVP. While the Gophers ended up one game short of the Frozen Four, LaFontaine was named the program’s first recipient of the Mike Richter Award, given annually to college hockey’s top netminder.
With an extra year of NCAA eligibility due to the pandemic, he opted to come back for a fifth season of college hockey. He was named one of the team's three captains, and with an easy smile and honest nature, he was the face and voice of the Gophers. And while his 2021-22 numbers weren’t matching what he had done a season earlier, what would be his final weekend in goal for the Gophers was seemingly a return to form for LaFontaine, who played every minute of 4-1 and 6-3 wins at Michigan State — the Gophers’ first road sweep of the season.
In a year where goalies are a hot free agent commodity, he may well catch on with a new team soon. And perhaps his experience will serve as an example for future players. We hear time and again that pro sports is a business, and the players are nothing but commodities, to be bought, sold, traded and discarded on a whim.
But when it happens before your eyes, to a player revered by a college fanbase, it can be hard to watch, and even harder to stomach.